Hinges Between Days
Stills Gallery, Edinburgh
curated by Kirsten Lloyd
catalogue text by Kirsten Lloyd
Elín Jakobsdóttir’s film Horsebox (2009) opens with a close shot of a joiner’s work- bench. Bisecting the image, a chisel rests upon a cylinder of wood clamped by a vice. A male figure holds it upright as he brings to bear the force of a mallet. Silent quick- fire sequences of sawing, hammering and screwing follow, framing the action in near detail and neutral tones. As the static shot rests upon the workshop floor, a pile of flat-pack plywood abruptly pops into view rapidly followed by two men in identical grey overalls. Carefully laying the materials out, each workman’s gesture is mirrored by the other: not quite choreographed but unquestionably directed. From the process of creation in this how-to vignette, we witness the life journey of the ‘horsebox’ as it is conveyed through the streets of Berlin. Along the way, the workers repeatedly switch roles from craftsman to fool, interacting with their anomalous creation by lying in it, peering through its apertures and solemnly processing it through the urban environment.
I first encountered Horsebox as a storyboard in Elín Jakobsdóttir’s Berlin studio. Through this simple method she had delineated both the narrative structure and the shot angles using a double-layered configuration of photographs and line drawings. She told me that rather than completing the work in video, she had been waiting for an opportunity to shoot in the more expensive and prescriptive format of 16mm film. Following a remarkably short production period, Horsebox was presented as part of ‘Hinges Between Days’ in Winter 2009. It is Jakobsdóttir’s most ambitious moving image work to date, and for the purposes of this short essay, I would like to use it to discuss her approach to film, particularly her treatment of the material itself, how it operates in relation to her photographic and sculptural works, and the display choices made in the context of the gallery.
The physical medium of film is fast disappearing from our day-to-day cultural experiences. As it is superseded by new digital formats and projection technologies it appears that we are simultaneously experiencing a reversion of this process, whereby the memory of film becomes ever more acute in our minds. This tendency is perhaps most keenly felt in the field of art where, despite increasing difficulties in sourcing equipment, expertise and production facilities, a significant number of artists are deliberately choosing to work with spools of celluloid and mechanical projectors. What does film offer that its contemporary replacements do not? Historically, the convergence of art with the moving image has tended to shift away from the ‘cinematic’ modes of representation and narrative, prioritising instead Modernist concerns with the construct itself. Though Jakobsdóttir’s specific approach to materials indicates that her work has passed through the filter of Modernism, Horsebox occupies a fascinating point of intersection where these important antecedents are set alongside a return to the illusionism of cinema, an embrace of documentary tropes alongside a fascination with the sculptural and social possibilities of the projection space. In this it reflects and contributes to a number of recent tendencies in contemporary moving image practices.
Returning to this near obsolete medium, Jakobsdóttir invokes 16mm film’s past prevalence in educational and industrial contexts as a cheap alternative to the 35mm format of the movies. In Horsebox the aesthetic of the instructional documentary subtly slips into the absurd as her editing processes reveal the constructed nature of the film itself, while drawing the oblique approaches of the imagination into the frame. Jarring jump cuts, achieved through the cutting and splicing of film stock, disrupt the silent chain of images animating the horsebox and provoking it into apparently independent motion. As the object ‘pops’ down the tree-lined avenue flanked by the detached workmen, the feats of early cinematic pioneers are recalled, in particular Georges Méliès’ hilarious entanglements with unruly magical furniture in his classic film Le Diable Noir (1905).1 These first filmmakers felt no immediate compulsion to incorporate sound and speech into their pictures, effectively disregarding early experiments to rely instead upon sheets of musical score until the eventual invention of the ‘talkies’ over 30 years later. Here, Jakobsdóttir demonstrates a similar confidence in the ability of images to narrate compelling stories; in her hands these lo-fi techniques have lost little of their disquieting effects and comic potential. But these cuts play a double role, simultaneously constructing the playful narrative and disrupting the filmic illusion. By exposing the physical process of editing, a Brechtian distancing effect is created, heightened by the deliberate casting of non-actors whose hesitant and slightly uneasy gestures avoid the usual cohesive polish of professional performers.
Transferred from film to DVD, Horsebox has been digitally projected onto a wall in Stills’ dimmed lower gallery on a scale not quite large enough to fill the field of vision. Swivelling ninety degrees anticlockwise, the viewer can look through a high corridor to see the horsebox itself mounted in the window. Entitled Wooden Horsebox (2007) the object is first encountered as a sculpture when entering Stills’ gallery space, only to be experienced again as an image. From a certain perspective it is as if the props have been tipped from the frames of the film into material reality to hover in this intermediary state between fact and fiction. Glancing to the right, another projection vies for attention, this time presented on a more intimate double-sided MDF structure erected between two viewing benches. These physical processes of circumambulation and sidelong glances cast us into the projection zone, opening up the space between the lens and the screen as a site for interaction. While ‘Hinges Between Days’ cannot be said to echo the immersive conditions of some expanded cinema works from the 1960s onwards, something remains of that hybrid approach to artforms and the move beyond the regulated cinema-style black box. A kind of performative feel pervades the gallery space, as a character in the film the Wooden Horsebox becomes playful and anthropomorphic, tempting us to climb inside or to use it as a viewing device. In this way Jakobsdóttir bridges the gap between filmic and physical reality; by yoking the image to the site of projection she disturbs our traditionally passive and disciplined position to leave a different kind of space open for social and psychological engagement.
A cumulative charge is built up in the exhibition as the forms and images continue to reverberate. With the extension into social space strange temporal relationships are created where the same object is experienced in the past through the film, in the present as a physical object and in the future during our own imaginative projections. This configuration echoes the philosopher Gilles Deleuze’s description of what he calls the ‘time-image’ in cinema in which a linear past/present/future succession is replaced with a model where a single event can belong to many different levels and sheets of time can co-exist. Deleuze argues that in the time-image, the black bars that frame and divide the sequential images of a film strip become irrational intervals which no longer underpin the film’s logical sense of progression but rather constitute sites of radical uncertainty. The cuts in Horsebox draw attention to these moments between shots by creating jolting interruptions while the switches between static camera positions emphasise that we are watching a specific duration of action captured on a length of film stock. And it’s from this perspective that the original storyboard comes back into view; through this format time is also accrued within the photographic shot only to skip and telescope between frames. Jakobsdóttir refers to this effect as ‘a condensing or distilling of the narrative structure’, finding in the edits a movement which reflects the workers’ use of the horsebox as an aperture through which to jump from one space to another. While video also records scenes in motion, it is not based upon the still photographic image but rather builds its picture through pixels and scanlines, continuously streaming time with no breaks or gaps. For me, the interval plays a vital role in Jakobsdóttir’s work, whether it is between frames or in the relationship between objects in the gallery. In this way her approach to film draws upon a rich historical lineage while also referring us back to the specificities of the material itself. Horsebox is a play on both words and form: ostensibly referring to a trailer for horses, this notion is comically contradicted by the structure’s scale and the schematic horse-like shape. The exhibition title ‘Hinges Between Days’ is equally evocative, conjuring images of transitional in-between or negative zones. Rather than seeking to seduce or pacify the viewer, Jakobsdóttir centralises our position, creating these ambiguous intervals that leave room for us to imagine and project. It’s here, alongside humour, ambiguity and the awkward warmth of her ‘characters’, that she finds something intensely human: sites brimming with the potential of the encounter.